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Once Was Enough

No matter how much you love musicals, not every cast album is worthy of repeated listening. logo
When Jeffrey Nash wrote in to answer my question, "What in theater annoys you?" he tossed back a question to me: "What cast albums have you played only once? Just this week," he noted, "I've been playing Taboo and Caroline, or Change much more than I would have guessed from seeing the shows -- but I found the Alfred Molina Fiddler so bland and painful that I took it off after 20 minutes and I'm sure I'll never play it again. And though I don't think I ever got past the first few minutes of Late Nite Comic, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Peg or Trelawney, I'm someone who has actually played things like Angel and Golden Rainbow enough to be able to hum the tunes. So, I was wondering, which cast albums do you find the least playable? And I don't mean just annoying albums like the cut-down Follies or the bizarre ones like Coco, where Katharine Hepburn is pitched to sound like Donald Duck in a rain barrel; those albums do get played (at least at my house). But I'm wondering: Have I ever played the second side of Nefertiti, Thomas and the King or Let My People Come? Has anyone?"

Well, let's take the last question first. "Playing the second side" certainly takes us back to another era, doesn't it? As someone whose first purchase of an original cast album was Bye Bye Birdie in 1961, I'm certainly from the days of the LP (long-playing record is what those initials mean, young 'uns). So even today, when I'm playing a CD of a vintage show -- say, A Little Night Music -- I'm always aware when "Liaisons" finishes and before "In Praise of Women" is about to start, "Hmm, here's where I used to turn over the LP." Though walking over to the phonograph was an interruptive pain, I did like the times when the split seemed perfectly natural -- say, on Company, where Side One ended where Act I ended (at "Getting Married Today") and Side Two began where Act II did (with "Side by Side by Side"). I do remember that before The Apple Tree came out on LP in late 1966, I thought, "Well, this one sure won't be able to have Act I on one side and Act II on another" -- because The Apple Tree consisted of three one-act musicals.

But back to the question at hand: Have there been cast albums that I've played only once? If you'd asked me in 1978, Jeffrey, I'd have answered, "No" -- because after my wife left me in April, 1977, I decided to assuage my grief by having a Complete Original Cast Album Festival, going from A-to-Z. There were certain albums I just couldn't play when she was around. I do remember that Let It Ride! was the first about which she complained -- vociferously, by the way. So on that long-ago April morn, I started with the aforementioned Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death and, eight-plus months later, finished up with The Zulu and the Zayda. And given that I'd always put on a brand-new cast album purchase the moment I got home -- undoubtedly, another reason my wife left me -- each one of those albums was being played for at least a second time.

But that was a quarter-century ago. Lord knows, hundreds of cast albums have been issued since then, some of which I'm sure I've only played once. Not that every one of them was horrible, but some just weren't interesting enough for me to yell "Encore!" One example is Ethel Merman's Broadway, with Rita McKenzie mimicking The Merm. It's perfectly fine but, really, if I'm going to listen to renditions of Ethel Merman songs, I'll just listen to Ethel Merman.

I must admit that, like Jeffrey, I have only played the Fiddler revival cast album once -- though it's not so much a value judgment with me. Rarely do I play a revival cast album in favor of the original. How to Succeed makes it occasionally, because I love the reprise of "Been a Long Day" that wasn't included on the original. Ditto Chicago for the extended "Nowadays," and Cabaret for its unique approach: the Kit Kat Club numbers include the sounds of a responsive audience, while the book numbers do not. But I've only played the new Wonderful Town once because of "Conquering the City," the many minutes-long musical sequence that comes between "Ohio" and "One Hundred Easy Ways." Yes, one of the greatest aspects of CDs is their ability to include all the dance music that couldn't fit on old-fangled LPs, but sometimes there winds up being too much of a good thing.

Similarly, I never play the 1996 ...Forum because there's that "Tragedy Tonight" business in the midst of "Comedy Tonight." Though it was a wonderfully funny sight gag onstage, it derails the song on the album, which shouldn't happen to one of the best opening numbers of all time. One could argue that this bit had to be included because, after all, it's what happened in the revival. Well, if that's the case, why does the album include "Pretty Little Picture," which was never in this production?

With technology allowing everyone to become a recording engineer at his synthesizer and computer, I have several demos of new musicals that, I'm ashamed to say, I haven't yet played once, let alone twice. Note to fledgling composers and lyricists: If you want to make sure that I'll listen to your demo, please send it so that it will arrive at my office at the Star-Ledger on a Thursday. That's the one day of the week that I always drive -- to News 12 New Jersey, where I review on TV. After I'm done, I drive to the Star-Ledger, and if I get a CD in the mail that day, I always listen to it that night while driving home to New York. The demos that arrive on the other days of the week get put in what I euphemistically call My Pile of Good Intentions.

What albums have made me say, "Oh, my God, that's horrible! I will never never ever again play that!"? Only one immediately comes to mind: The British cast album of Share My Lettuce. In fact, in order to tell you about it right now, I'll have to consult the notes in the CD booklet, so I'll pull the disc off the shelf for only the second time in my life. Aha! This 1957 show wasn't quite a musical but, rather, "a diversion with music." Who wrote it? Believe it or not, the AEI CD doesn't even say. It does list the cast and, if not the roles they play, identifies them by the colors they wear. (This was that kind of revue.) So I read about Barbara Evans in Pink, John Prescott in Maroon, Roderick Cook (oh, I know him!) in Grey, Heather Linson in Violet, Kenneth Mason in Brown, Philip Gilbert in Blue, Maggie Smith (yes, that Maggie Smith) in Orange, and Kenneth Williams in Lettuce Green. (The italics are mine but the adjective is theirs.)

Onto the notes, by one G. Fearon. "Michael Codron, a young manager with bright ideas" -- let us be the judge of that -- "realized the possibilities of Share My Lettuce, a Cambridge University show" -- uh oh, a college musical! -- "and against all the advice of his elders" -- Michael, you should listen to people who are older and wiser -- "promptly made the necessary plans to translate this gay" -- meant in the old-world context -- "little revue from amateur to professional stage. That he succeeded beyond even his own wildest hopes is now common knowledge." Is it? I had to go through plenty of reference books before I found the definitive answer in the London Theatre World Annual #10, which notes that Share My Lettuce ran 285 performances. Hmm, that wasn't a bad run back then. Maybe there is something to this show, after all. Let me try it again...


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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